Seton Hall University is known for piloting mobile devices. Each year, part of student tuition and fees cover new devices for freshmen and juniors.
But this fall, the university will test something different: a tablet running Windows 8. That's right. At a time when universities are choosing Apple (think Abilene Christian University) or Android, this New Jersey university picked Windows.
Instead of providing laptops for every student, Seton Hall plans to go with a Samsung Series 7 tablet for 400 students.
The CIO and associate CIO at Seton Hall provided context for this decision and shared how tests with different operating systems went.
Faculty drive tablet pilots
Windows tablets aren't new to Seton Hall. Five years ago, both the sciences and honors faculty asked to experiment with different devices, said Stephen Landry, CIO at Seton Hall University.
The sciences faculty — made up of the math, physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry and computer science disciplines — said students couldn't create diagrams easily with their laptop keyboard. And the honors faculty wanted to go paperless.
They got their wish in the form of a convertible tablet in Lenovo's ThinkPad X-series that eventually ran Windows 7. A digital pen and OneNote software helped the science students take notes.
Two years later, Landry drove some honors faculty to a conference at the University of Maryland. On the way back, the faculty members whipped out their tablets to grade papers.
"As we know, not all faculty use the technology that we provide them, but it was really interesting to see that a fair fraction of them really liked the paperless concept and found that a tablet is really what they needed to make that paperless environment work," Landry said.
Apple and Android pilots
After the success of the convertible tablets, in fall 2011 the university started two pilots with Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) and iOS. From the business and science disciplines, 450 students and faculty tested a Lenovo ThinkPad tablet. Another 100 from the Health and Medical Sciences School, and the College of Education and Human Services received iPads.
In focus groups, science and business students said they liked the Android tablet's form factor and long battery life. But they needed OneNote, they told Landry's team.
On the management side, the Android and iPad devices weren't ideal. To distribute apps for the iPad, IT staff had to purchase them in volume and install them with unique codes for each device. That meant the university couldn't switch out a student's failed device for one on hand because the code couldn't be reset.
"It was a management nightmare," said Paul Fisher, associate CIO and director of the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center at Seton Hall. "The enterprise deployment and support features just aren't there in the other two platforms like they've existed in Windows for so long."
The Windows 8 decision
Based on feedback and management issues, Seton Hall didn't continue the Android and iPad pilots. But the university continued to look for tablets.
Samsung responded to a December 2011 RFP with a Series 7 tablet. The Windows 7-based tablet had good form factor, but not an acceptable touch experience, Landry said.
Seton Hall planned to table the tablet discussions until fall 2012. But talks in April led to the university joining Microsoft's early adopter program and choosing the Series 7 tablet running Windows 8.
The tablet can replace student laptops because it has the typical insides of an ultrabook, boots in 5 seconds and works with software that these learning disciplines use.
"That is actually a Windows device that gives students a really good tablet experience, but also gives them all the tools that they're used to having in their laptop environment," Landry said.
Tablet transition and fall plans
With the decision made, in June 400 freshmen in sciences, business and honors received tablets with pre-release versions of Windows 8. The other 800 freshmen received a Series 5 Ultrabook running Windows 7. They'll also receive a Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone.
When class starts on Aug. 27, the IT team will upgrade both groups to the final Windows 8 version and give juniors similar hardware.